There was one cheesy bit called something like: Ask the Hillbilly What Time It Is. The new morning show guy would ask, and then a character called Jed would say something like: "Wooooooo, doggy! I guess it's time to throw granny in the pool!"
"Everything can be inference. You can infer what you're trying to say, and it's still obvious."
"Or some stupid thing," Jer says. "I still give him shit about it."
His bosses started looking for a producer, and Jer volunteered, even though he didn't know anything about the technical side of the gig. He locked himself away for a month and learned what he needed to know.
He was hired on for TJ Trout's morning show.
They wrote fresh bits. Jer did some character voices, and slowly, they became partners. A generation of banter and boobs was born in Albuquerque.
"We had a mountain—literally a mountain—of stuff on Civic Plaza."
TJ became the most well-known radio personality in the state. His listeners trust him because he is them: a regular guy. A regular guy with awful working hours. That's a big part of why he's hanging it up after all these years. Wednesday, Dec. 21, will be TJ's last morning on the airwaves. Jer calls it the end of an era.
Every weekday morning, TJ gets up at 3:45 a.m. He eats breakfast, showers, shaves and then gets to work in jeans and a baseball cap no later than 5 a.m. Once there, he scours the paper and the Internet so he's up on current events—fodder for the show. He's in the control room just before 6 a.m., getting ready to direct a conversation with his cohorts for four hours. There are commercial breaks, of course. Every once in a while, there’s rock. "The only time I play a song is if I have to go to the can," he says.
These days the co-hosts are the Rainman and Swami Rob, though Jer still voices characters from his home in Colorado. "We know each other inside and out," TJ says. "Jer knows what I'm going to say, and he knows what I'm thinking. And I know what he's going to say, so I know how to react. Same thing goes for Swami and Rainman. We've worked together so long, we're almost like one brain."
"I've never been treated nicer than I have on the pueblos. They like us, and we like them. We're a really good fit."
TJ spends most of the morning standing behind a giant control board in a cramped studio. One wall is covered in pictures of chicks in bikinis. A large American flag and posters eat up some more wall real estate. A silver Christmas tree stands in the corner. It's decorated with even more glistening cleavage.
TJ’s all about pushing the limits, giving a sly middle finger to the Federal Communications Commission. He's had complete creative control during his career, he says, with few complaints from his bosses. There was the pumpkin-screwing bit and the big O competition—both accomplished within the guidelines of the FCC. "Everything can be inference. You can infer what you're trying to say, and it's still obvious."
TJ got his degree in broadcast journalism from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. "I had aspirations to be Woodward and Bernstein with the Washington Post," he says. "I wanted to be a print journalist, and radio lured me away."
"You can't tell a Houston station from an Albuquerque station from a San Francisco station. They're all the same."
News is a big part of the morning show. Politicos stop by the studio for interviews. "Any politician that's available to talk with us and wants to tell their side, we'll put them on the air. We'll talk to them."
Former Gov. Gary Johnson swings by every year—once for an enthusiastic row about the decriminalization of marijuana with Diane Anderson. TJ's a big fan of New Mexico's Everest-scaling ex guv. He'd vote for him in 2012, he says, and there's a bumper sticker pinned to the wall of the studio that says as much. Generally, though, the show stays away from endorsements. They can interfere with political comedy.
Officials weren't sure how to respond, TJ says. "I talked to someone at the city, and he said they were considering two options: Do we help him, or do we arrest him?" They made the right decision, he says. TJ credits this stunt with spurring a recycling program in Albuquerque. "I'm pretty proud of that.”
Buried in his office’s dorm-room decor hangs a painting of an elk with the word "Jemez" painted beneath it. It was a gift from a friend on the pueblo. Many listeners are on nearby pueblos, and once a year, the show has done a tour broadcasting live from Jemez, Acoma, Zuni and Isleta. "We'd do an overnight stay, eat a lot and just have fun," TJ says. "I've never been treated nicer than I have on the pueblos. They like us, and we like them. We're a really good fit."
TJ has grasped the holy grail in media: He reaches a broad audience that trusts him. "What we've really been good at is reflecting the listeners," he says. "We mirror them. That's what's important to them. They want to hear people they can relate to, who understand their problems, understand what they're going through in life."
“We've been waiting for this opportunity for a while, and we don't plan on squandering it."
He's done it, he says, by getting out there and talking to people. "I've gotten to know a lot of people, a lot of my listeners. You have to be empathetic. You have to know what motivates them."
They send him gifts—Cleveland Browns paraphernalia and all things trout-related. Though TJ likes fishing, the "Trout" part of his name is not about bait and tackle. Instead, it's a reference to Kilgore Trout, a character who appears in several Kurt Vonnegut novels.
He says he’s got two personalities. There's the crass loudmouth spitting a torrent of jokes, laughter and commentary from behind the mic. But in his off hours, it's different. "The thing I get a lot is: You're not like you are on the air at all. I'm not. In my personal life, I'm a very private person. Actually, people call me shy. I'm pretty reserved."
There are 23 Merlot grapevines in his backyard. He's read books on winemaking and took a UC Davis course on the subject. As he planned his retirement over the last two years, he considered starting up a commercial vineyard in Corrales. But he was afraid his hobby would become something he didn't much like if he turned it into a business.
Instead, he sold his house and is moving to Delaware—right near the ocean. "My grand plan is to do nothing for one year," he says. "I'm not going to think about work. I'm going to fish. I'm going to sleep. Sleep's very important. After that, who knows? I may be ready to do some more radio. Or I might just want to hike my pants up right below my nipples and get behind a fishing counter. I'll sell worms."
He wants to make it clear that his retirement is 100 percent his decision. The announcement of his departure coincided with the firing of two other Clear Channel morning show hosts: Tony Lynn and Myles on Big I 107.9. "So of course everybody thinks, Oh, TJ is being forced out. I'm not. I've been planning this for years."
Jer, TJ's first co-host, says the morning show is the last holdout in an increasingly homogenized radio landscape. "I think TJ was able to get away with a lot because of his longevity." Around the country, as big corporations buy up the little guys, the airwaves are becoming safe and bland, he says. "They have their focus groups. They're going after specific demographics."
That's not how it used to be, Jer says. "You could go to your favorite station and tell who was on the air by what was being played. The disc jockey had some say." The bright and weird radio personalities are winking out, one after another. "You can't tell a Houston station from an Albuquerque station from a San Francisco station. They're all the same."
TJ predicts we'll see the towers on top of the mountain come down in the next decade. Radio will come through the Internet, he says. It's a period of transition. "I don't even know if radio knows what direction radio is going in."
Swami Rob says his time with TJ has been an adventure. "I've seen some things I never thought I'd see, from the sublime to the supreme and everything in between." He and TJ have had a long-running football bet with escalating stakes. They made their picks each week, and whoever got the most wrong, lost. At first, the loser would have to buy the winner dinner. So they started picking fancier and fancier restaurants until TJ had to drop $250 at the Ranchers Club. That maxed out dinner, so they moved on to humiliations.
One time, TJ had to have his back waxed on the air. He's a hairy dude, Swami points out. "I lent him a Vicodin beforehand so it wouldn't hurt so bad." Another time, Swami had to wear a protective suit, the kind used to train attack dogs, and let people shoot golf balls at him at the driving range. "A couple people scored direct hits," he says. TJ had to dress up as a Hooters girl and serve people lunch. Swami had to wear a dominatrix outfit and stand in the window of a sex-toy shop.
But the memory that really sticks out for Swami Rob was the morning of 9/11. "It was time to quit being Beavis and Butt-Head and be real,” he says. “There's a serious side to TJ and a knowledgeable side that was really cool to be around. Because face it, we're fart-joke guys. We're the sex, drug and rock 'n' roll guys.”
The day was right near TJ's 15th anniversary with the station, and there was supposed to be a huge party featuring '80s hair band Great White. "With two days' notice, we ended up turning that into a big candlelight vigil and fund drive for 9/11 victims instead." Using their radio powers for good is another lesson Swami Rob takes from TJ, and it's a tradition he plans on continuing, along with a host of others. "Myself and Rainman have trained under the best for the last 16 years," Swami Rob says. "We're ready for this. Bring it. We've been waiting for this opportunity for a while, and we don't plan on squandering it."